When he was the church's chief enforcer of doctrine 25 years ago, Pope Benedict XVI declined to immediately defrock a California priest who admitted to child sexual abuse, saying he needed more time to consider the impact of the case on "the good of the Universal Church," according to a letter released Friday.
The 1985 letter to Bishop John Cummins of Oakland is the latest document to shed light on Benedict's handling of the sexual abuse crisis in his earlier career, when he was known as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger and headed the Vatican office that ultimately assumed full responsibility for such cases. In it, he acknowledges the "grave significance" of the charges against the priest, Stephen Kiesle, who had pleaded no contest to charges of molesting two boys in 1978. But Ratzinger said he needed more time and information, in part because of the "detriment that [defrocking] can provoke with the community of Christ's faithful."
It would be another two years before the Vatican relented to the request, which apparently came on Kiesle's initiative.
The revelation about the Ratzinger letter is likely to fuel debate over the pope's role in the sexual abuse scandal roiling the Roman Catholic Church.
By itself, the Vatican letter suggests that Ratzinger was reluctant to act hastily in such a grave matter as defrocking a priest, something that is rarely done.
Church critics said it was part of a pattern by the Vatican of seeming more concerned about the church's reputation than about the trauma of sexual abuse victims, about whom Ratzinger says nothing in the document.
"You have the diocese asking for it, the priest himself asking for it, and the Vatican's the only one that's thinking he shouldn't be kicked out of the priesthood," said Mike Finnegan, a Minnesota attorney whose firm represented two of Kiesle's victims in Northern California lawsuits.
"The importance of defrocking someone is to establish that the priest did wrong in the eyes of the Vatican," added Dan McNevin, director of the Oakland chapter of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. The letter "says to me that the deck was stacked against kids to the highest level of the Vatican."
However, Thomas Plante, a psychologist at Santa Clara University and author of "Sin Against the Innocents: Sexual Abuse by Priests and the Role of the Catholic Church," cautioned that the Ratzinger letter should be considered in light of the era and of church doctrine.
"If this letter came across his desk today . . . I can't imagine that what was done in '85 would be done in 2010," he said.
Anyway, he added, defrocking doesn't always make sense in sexual abuse cases, especially those in which there has been no criminal conviction. "That's not necessarily smart in terms of the protection of kids," Plante said. "If you defrock them and throw them out, you don't control them. . . . Is it better to keep them as a priest so they're still under a vow of obedience and then put them on ice somewhere?"
A Vatican spokesman declined to comment on the substance of the letter Friday, but confirmed its authenticity.
"The press office doesn't believe it is necessary to respond to every single document taken out of context regarding particular legal situations," Father Federico Lombardi said. "It is not strange that there are single documents which have Cardinal Ratzinger's signature."
The letter was first reported by the Associated Press and later obtained by The Times.
It was apparently written in response to letters from the Diocese of Oakland supporting Kiesle's request to be removed from the priesthood. The diocese said it was concerned about his "questionable relationships with young children" and his lack of motivation and emotional maturity to be a priest.
In letters to the Vatican, Cummins cited a "great deal of publicity surrounding" Kiesle's conduct and said "there might be greater scandal to the community if Father Kiesle were allowed to return to the active ministry."
Kiesle was sentenced to three years' probation in 1978 on misdemeanor charges of lewd conduct stemming from his molestation of the two boys, ages 11 and 12. He was relieved of priestly duties that year. In his correspondence with the Vatican, Cummins reported Kiesle's conviction for "having taken sexual liberties" with boys.
Despite the conviction, Kiesle was allowed to volunteer at a church in the Bay Area town of Pinole beginning in 1985, according to newspaper accounts -- the same year Ratzinger wrote the letter to the diocese. While in Pinole, he allegedly committed additional crimes. The Vatican defrocked him in 1987. He remained a volunteer until at least 1988, according to an attorney for two of Kiesle's alleged victims.